Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 5

In part 1, part 2part 3, and part 4 of this series, we look at ways injury will affect your practice and at strategies for coping. Now let’s look at back pain. It’s a major issue in aging bodies and, for many people, an incentive for beginning a yoga practice. Good! Yoga asana can help counter back pain, as can general relaxation and awareness. However, many of the moves you’ll find in a typical class are not appropriate, depending on the pathology of your own back pain. Have a detailed conversation with your health-care provider and, if you have one, your physical therapist about what is going on, and which moves are indicated and contraindicated as part of your treatment plan.

That said, here are some general and specific ideas for practicing to avoid and counter back pain.

If it hurts to flex your spine/fold forward:

Don’t do it! The rounding your spine takes in a forward fold can exacerbate disk issues and places great stress on the front of your vertebrae, a no-no if you have bone density problems. Instead of rounding in a forward fold, stop with a long back. This may mean you don’t go very far at all, and that’s OK. You can ensure your back stays long by lying down and lifting your leg to stretch, rather than leaning the full weight of your torso over it in a seated or standing forward fold.

Keeping your back long ensures you don’t exacerbate back pain.

Similarly, don’t do roll up or roll down exercises if they hurt. Instead, focus on keeping your back long and moving form your hips, not your spine.

Instead of flexing, focus on extending the spine, which will strengthen the muscles that support a tall posture. Prone backbends like locust pose are especially good for this.

Locust pose will strengthen the muscles that support your spine.

If it hurts to extend your spine/bend backward:

Don’t do it! If muscle spasms mean you have trouble bending backward, invite your muscles to release in a supported pose like legs to a chair.

Propping your legs on a chair encourages your back muscles to relax.

If it hurts to twist or lean to the side

Don’t do it! Problems with disks, vertebrae, stenosis, or the sacroiliac (SI) joint can cause pain with these movements. Revert to legs to a chair and talk to your health-care provider.

—Sage

Relief for Your Upper Back, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, we explored a passive backbend you can enjoy most days for several minutes at a time. If you’ve been practicing that shape diligently in the last two weeks, you’re ready for part 2. (If you haven’t, that’s OK; do one five-minute hold of the pose, then join us here.) The flexibility you’ve created across your chest by stretching it is critical to the exercises demoed here, as tightness through the chest will prevent you from developing strength across the upper back.

Problem

When the upper spine rounds forward and the chest is tight, the muscles of the upper back are held long and lose strength.

Solution

Once you’ve cultivated chest flexibility, work to strengthen your upper back.

In this video, I demonstrate some exercises to do standing, on hands and knees, and on your belly to strengthen your upper back. Do the ones that work for you—if being on your wrists doesn’t feel good, skip those—most days until you feel pleasant fatigue. After a few weeks, you’ll feel the difference!

—Sage

Hunchback, Begone! Relief for Your Upper Back, Part 1

Let’s talk about the hunch! It’s been on my mind both over time—I have a prominently rounded, or kyphotic upper back, and have since childhood (one doctor called it “front to back scoliosis,” not what you want to hear as a teenaged girl)—and recently, as a picture of me in a yoga pose with the label HUNCHBACK caught my attention over the weekend. (Don’t worry: it was followed by a picture of me in an extension pose labeled BEGONE!; you can read the full story, and get a yoga philosophy takeaway, on my blog.)

Problem

While a round in your upper back is a normal position of your spine, it can grow more pronounced with age. This hunch is compounded by time spent with your hands on a keyboard, bike handlebars, or tennis racquet. If it’s left to progress, it can create stress in the upper back and neck and, even worse, affect your breathing.

Solution

In this and the next few posts, I’ll offer a three-part approach to warding off the hunch. Happily, the first step is to stretch your chest, and this is a relaxing thing to do.

In this video, I show how you can set up for a passive backbend using yoga props or materials you have around the house (a blanket and a book). Drape your spine against this support, close your eyes, and breathe—the first step toward unhunching is that easy! Enjoy it most days for about five minutes. It makes a nice prelude to bed, or a break in a busy day.

—Sage